Cold Streaks: The Studio Stewardship of Bryan Forbes at EMI

October 10, 2021
It’s been a while since I did a piece on film industry “cold streaks” and to mark my return to the series, I thought I’d try a change of pace by focusing on a film mogul. Or, rather, an actor-turned-writer-turned-producer-turned-director-turned-mogul: Bryan Forbes, who from 1969-70 was head of production at EMI Films.

I’m not quite sure where Forbes stands these days in the world of cinema buffs – he doesn’t have anything super cult-y on his resume, at least not in Australia. Maybe it’s different in the UK, because for a time there, Forbes was one of the most significant figures in the British film industry.

He was born in 1923 and first came to notice as an actor, playing a lot of second lieutenants in British war movies. Forbes always liked to write and eventually branched out into screenplays, earning a strong reputation with credits like I Was Monty’s Double (1958). Frustrated at the sort of material he had to work on, both as actor and scribe, Forbes decided to hit the entrepreneurial route, teaming up with Richard Attenborough to produce The Angry Silence (1960), starring Attenborough from a script by Forbes.

The two men joined the short-lived filmmaking co-op, Allied Filmmakers, for whom Forbes wrote The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Man in the Moon (1960). Allied then financed Forbes’ directorial debut, Whistle Down the Wind (1961), along with his next two efforts behind the camera: The L-Shaped Room (1962) and Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964).

Allied eventually ceased operations but by now Forbes was, deservedly, established as a “hot” director. This meant Hollywood came calling, offering him the POW epic King Rat (1965), after which he returned to Britain to make The Wrong Box (1966), The Whisperers (1967) (maybe his best movie) and Deadfall (1968). He then replaced John Huston as director on The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969).

By this stage, Forbes was one of the leading directors in England, although there were a lot on that podium at the time (Lester, Lean, Losey, Boorman, Clive Donner, Schlesinger, etc). So, it was something of a shock in April 1969 when EMI announced Forbes would be head of production for their main film division.

EMI (short for Electric and Musical Industries) was a business conglomerate best known for its record label, which had been launched into the stratosphere via the success of the Beatles. EMI wanted to get into movies, and in February 1969 took over the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC), who owned the second-biggest cinema chain in England as well as various production companies and the famous Elstree Studios (There’s a good summary of the company here). Theatre impresario Bernard Delfont, the largest shareholder of EMI, hired Forbes to run the film division.

Okay, that wasn’t entirely true – he hired Forbes to run a film division; there was another one, Anglo-EMI, headed by Nat Cohen, an executive and producer whose highly successful company Anglo-Amalgamated (best known for the Carry On series) had been taken over by Associated British back in the early 1960s. We’ll talk more about Cohen later. (I’m throwing a lot of names at you, I apologise, that’ll stop soon, but Forbes is our main person.)

Anyway, 1969 was an odd year in the British film industry. It was the tail end of the “swinging sixties” cinema boom that had been powered by Hollywood money, which in turn had been attracted to Britain by a variety of hugely successful films such as the Bond series, Tom Jones (1963), and all those sexy kitchen sink dramas.

It had been a golden time, with a new star/classic film/trendy director unearthed seemingly every month, but by 1969 the tide was starting to turn; the Hollywood studios were haemorrhaging money and eventually withdrew most of their funds from England, leaving local filmmakers with less options for finance. To make things worse, Britain’s Rank Organisation, owner of the largest cinema chain in the country, and traditionally Associated British’s main rival, had also cut back on movie making.

So, there was general rejoicing (well, understated British rejoicing, anyway) at EMI’s decision to ramp up local production. A well-resourced, vertically-integrated entertainment conglomerate willing to invest money… that sounded promising. And it was promising. EMI was ideally situated to make a go of it with films: it owned cinemas, a studio, a library of old movies they could draw on, links to music and theatre.

And now they had Bryan Forbes as a studio head. (NB. He had various job titles but when I say “studio head”, I basically mean what William Goldman called “the green light guy”, i.e. the person who decides what gets made – and until the 1980s it was always a guy). Most film buffs know the major Hollywood bosses: Louis B. Mayer, Bob Evans, the Zanucks, Sam Arkoff, Bob Iger, Sherry Lansing, etc.

British ones are less familiar. The most famous would be Alex Korda and Michael Balcon, in part because of talent and longevity but also due to self-promotion. Other examples include the Carreras family at Hammer, Ted Black (a superb executive) and Sydney Box at Gainsborough, Earl St John at Rank, Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy at Anglo-Amalgamated, and Robert Clark at Associated British.

Studio heads generally came from distribution and exhibition but not always; some of the most successful ones (Korda, Zanuck) had their origins in behind-the-camera roles, so it wasn’t that odd when Bernard Delfont went for a producer-director. The success of Bob Evans (and later Sherry Lansing) at Paramount demonstrated that being a former actor wasn’t a barrier. Forbes was smart, connected, and a do-er; he’d worked as a producer and knew the value of a buck and how to promote. He was also politically conservative (an ally of Tory PM Edward Heath) in a radical era, which I’m sure reassured the EMI Board.

Forbes did not have a track record of making blockbusters or big mainstream successes, it’s true, but he knew how to turn out classy films on the cheap that attracted good actors, turned a profit and won the odd award. He also had plenty of confidence in his own abilities, which any decent studio head needs.

So, Forbes moved into Elstree Studios, announcing his initial slate in August 1969. By the end of March 1971 he had resigned, after less than two years into the job.

Forbes’ regime was generally regarded as a failure, both at the time and subsequently, although he spent a lot of time trying to reframe it in later years through interviews and memoirs.

Looking back, how did he go?

Was Bryan Forbes a failure at EMI or was he one of those failures that was actually, when you look at it, a success?

In researching this piece, I read a bunch of contemporary newspaper articles on EMI and Forbes, along with books such as Alexander Walker’s histories of British cinema, Hollywood, England and National Heroes, plus Forbes’ own two memoirs, and particularly Paul Moody’s excellent EMI Films and the Limits of British Cinema (the latter is the one to read if you want to go in depth on EMI). There’s also this 1994 interview Forbes did at the British Entertainment History Project and sources such as this Screenonline and articles like this. And I saw the films.

I stress all the opinions I’m about to give are my own.

The Forbes Twelve

By my count, Forbes’ time at EMI resulted in twelve “Bryan Forbes” movies. These were not the only films the studio made, but they were the ones he announced and would talk about all the time as if they were his:

* Hoffman (1970) – black comedy based on a TV play and novel by Ernest Gebler starring Peter Sellers and Sinead Cusack directed by Alvin Rakoff.

* Eyewitness (1970) – a thriller based on a novel by Mark Hebden starring Mark (Oliver!) Lester and Australia’s own Tony Bonner, directed by John Hough.

And Soon the Darkness (1970) – thriller written by Brian Clemens and Terry Nation, starring Pamela Franklin, directed by Robert Fuest.

* The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) – thriller based on a novel by Anthony Armstrong starring Roger Moore directed by Basil Dearden (who had worked with Forbes at Allied).

* The Breaking of Bumbo (1970) – comedy written and directed by Andrew Sinclair, based on his best-selling novel.

* The Railway Children (1970) – coming of age period piece based on the classic novel by E. Nesbit, starring Jenny Agutter and directed by Lionel Jeffries.

* A Fine and Private Place (1970) – a period love story (I think) based on the novel by A.E. Coppard written and directed by Paul Watson, starring Nanette Newman (Mrs Forbes IRL) and Edward Woodward.

* The Go-Between (1971) – period drama based on the novel by LP Hartley starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates with a script by Harold Pinter and directed by Joseph Losey.

* Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971) – a “man and his penguins” tale based on the novel by Graham Billings (a Kiwi, incidentally) starring John Hurt written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Al Viola.

* The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971) – ballet based on the classic tales of Beatrix Potter directed by Reginald Mills.

* The Raging Moon (1971) – love story of two paraplegics, based on the novel by Peter Marshall (a real-life paraplegic who died when he was just 33 years old), starring Malcolm McDowell and Nanette Newman, written and directed by Forbes himself.

* Dulcima (1971) – drama starring John Mills and Carol White, based on the novel by H. E. Bates directed by Frank Nesbitt.

Like I say, there were other films made at EMI during Forbes’ time – some by Nat Cohen, others with MGM, which I will discuss later. I don’t count them as “Forbes” movies because his involvement in them seems to have been minimal (I could be wrong about that, but I don’t think I am).

Anyway, let’s look at the Forbes twelve and how they did.

And Soon the Darkness, Eyewitness and The Man Who Haunted Himself were all thrillers – normally a bread and butter genre. All films have reasonable reputations today: Roger Moore regularly said Man was his favourite film role, Eyewitness has its fans (such as Paul Moody) and Darkness earned a little cult and was remade. None really “broke through” commercially on release, though – indeed Man was a high profile disappointment. I think all films have their moments although the scripts were a bit iffy on Darkness and Eyewitness (there’s four different heroes in Eyewitness and Darkness seems to lack a third act). Still, worse films have done better at the box office. What happened? They might have lacked the sex/nudity/violence that audiences seemed to crave from thrillers at the time. Maybe Forbes didn’t have the commercial nous to help shape the script/edit/marketing the right way (after all, his track record tended to be as Mr Critical Acclaim rather than as Mr Mainstream Blockbuster). Maybe the films just needed to be better made and/or feature bigger stars. Or maybe it was just bad luck. Still, nothing to be ashamed of with these three.

Hoffman was a… comedy, I guess. Black comedy? Comedy drama? Hard to specify. One can’t blame Forbes for green lighting a Peter Sellers vehicle (the two men were friends IRL, incidentally)… but this was a weird one. It’s a creepy, rapey story in the vibe of something like The Collector about a middle aged man who kidnaps a younger woman… and she comes to fall for him… Sellers is excellent, so is Sinead Cusack, but it’s hard to make this sort of material anything other than unpleasant and surely even at inception, Forbes must have known this was a risk. It tanked. Only for Sellers completists and admirers of Cusack, IMHO.

Dulcima, like Hoffman, was an inexpensive drama, which had been previously filmed for TV about a horny older man going for a younger woman. In this case, the stars were John Mills and Carol White (whose exotic private life would make a fantastic movie). Also, like Hoffman it was a “small target film” i.e. where everything has to come off for it to work (script, casting, handling). Also, like Hoffman I don’t think it does and no one went to see it.

I get that taste is subjective and all that stuff, but for the life of me I can’t imagine why Forbes wanted to make one drama about a creepy middle aged man who chases after young girl let alone two. Sure, it’s cheap but does anyone like that story ever, unless it’s in the form of a thriller or a horror where we identify with the girl? And it’s not as though EMI had that much competition for story material in 1969 – were there no other scripts available?

The Breaking of Bumbo was a comedy about an officer in the Coldstream Guards who gets involved with some anarchists. The film is little remembered today, in part because it was/is so hard to see – the EMI board hated it so much it was barely released. I’ve seen Bumbo and it actually has some great moments, including a spirited Joanna Lumley performance; I think if it had come out when the novel did, in 1959, or even by the mid ‘60s, it would have gone gangbusters… but by 1970, we’d had Richard Lester, and Billy Liar (1963) and the good Michael Winner films and The Virgin Soldiers (1969)… the anarchic military comedy sub-genre had been tapped out. Also, National Service ended in 1960 so the market for servicemen comedies (so large in the ‘50s) simply wasn’t there anymore. Mind you, in fairness, the film never got the chance to find an audience. But surely Forbes could have checked with Delfont before sinking money into this? He had a lot of autonomy but just because he made something didn’t mean EMI would release it.

There were three “based on a classy piece of literature” films: The Railway Children, The Go-Between, and Tales of Beatrix Potter. All had well known source material. None were without risks: Railway Children had a first-time director, Beatrix Potter was a ballet and Go-Between had Joseph Losey coming off a cold streak that included Boom! (1968) All films worked beautifully, all were big hits that turned a tidy profit, all are a credit to Forbes. This trio rank amongst the best things he ever did in his entire career.

There were two films that sounded commercial: The Raging Moon, a tragic young things in love story (“sick lit”), and Mr Forbush, a person hanging out with cute animals story. However, Moon was a box office disappointment and Forbush was a disaster.

Raging Moon is quite well made, no surprise since it was Forbes who wrote and directed it. When the film didn’t work, some blamed the fact that the lead characters were paraplegics; I don’t think that’s it, audiences will go to such films with the right stars (eg. Me Before You (2016)). I think, simply, it had miscast leads. Malcolm McDowell and Nanette Newman, both excellent actors, were too old: the story needed to be about young things, as in the original novel (based on the author’s own experiences)… but McDowell was an old-looking 27 and Nanette Newman in her mid 30s. I also felt it needed a little more story. Forbes blamed spotty distribution but if he’d added a third main character (a rival, say, or someone’s parent) and cast some younger, attractive, soulful actors (such as Jenny Agutter from The Railway Children), I think Moon could have had a shot at raking in some of that Love Story cash.

Mr Forbush sounded as though it was going to be a fun Born Freestyle animal flick only with penguins. It was a production nightmare – original director Al Viola was sacked, a new director (Roy Boulting) installed, the film reshot with a new female lead (Hayley Mills). The day was not saved. Forbush is a mess, illogical, with a creepy romance, and worst of all, not heartwarming – and isn’t the main requirement of an animal film that it has to be heartwarming? (Unless you’re making a killer animal film of course). You need to see Forbush (played by John Hurt) bonding with penguins, laughing with penguins, crying as a penguin dies, rejoicing as penguins give birth. The film does not do this. I mean, come on, that’s basic animal movie 101, isn’t it? And John Hurt, superb performer as he is, never seems comfortable in more conventional leading man parts like this one. (If Hayley Mills had played his part, I think this would’ve done better.)

A Fine and Private Place started production, went over budget and schedule and Forbes pulled the pin. The film was never completed.

So, looking back at Forbes’ oeuvre, what can one say? He tried to make a slate of unusual films. He genuinely backed new talent. Any head of production would be proud to have The Go-Between, The Railway Children and Beatrix Potter on their CV (actually, that’s not true, a lot wouldn’t, but the classy ones would.) A lot of the other movies were damn good attempts.

But I think his regime was a failure. A fascinating failure, with a few bright spots in there, but that doesn’t change the fact that Forbes was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – the ability to green light a slate of all-British movies (there was some Hollywood money in The Go-Between) – and stuffed it.

Now, I recognise that no studio chief is infallible. Anyone who has any sort of career in show business will fail. All the great heads of production greenlit a large amount of turkeys.

And I should add that Forbes faced a great deal of union trouble and office politics during his stint (which he liked to bring up a lot in talking about this period, along with the fact that he took a pay cut to do the job).

But I think even without the benefit of hindsight, Forbes made several avoidable mistakes in his choice of films.

1) He used too many first time directors of whom too many were not up to it

It’s great that Forbes gave new directors a go. Backing Lionel Jeffries and Reginald Mills clearly paid off in spades and John Hough went on to a decent career. But, as a whole, all that inexperience hurt EMI, particularly in the cases of Al Viola (Forbush) and Paul Watson (A Fine and Private Place) – their two movies were disasters.

Forbes later argued that he was forced to pick so many newbies because the top British directors were not available and/or too expensive, and I’m sure that was true, but there were plenty of experienced helmers toiling away in British TV at the time (Don Sharp, Charles Crichton, Don Chaffey, etc) who weren’t used. I mean, the industry was in a downturn.

Personally, I think Forbes liked the romance of discovering new talent – they would be cheap, more amenable to his suggestions, and reflect well on him if their career came off. And it was nice of Forbes to give people a chance… but he risked too much of his slate on inexperienced hands. In particular, it boggles the mind that he allowed someone as green as Al Viola to direct Forbush which involved having to match footage with scenes shot in Antarctica.

I also wonder if Forbes had the best eye for directorial talent. Some of his proteges enjoyed decent careers behind the camera, such as John Hough and Lionel Jeffries, but the bulk did not. You can point to the downturn of the British industry in the ‘70s, which of course didn’t help – but, many of David Puttnam’s discoveries from that decade went on to have huge careers (Michael Apted, Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Adrian Lyne, etc), so the talent was there. (Random trivia – a young Jonathan Demme worked on Eyewitness as a music co-ordinator, but I don’t think Forbes had anything to do with that appointment.)

I think Forbes’ heart was 100% in the right place in developing new directors, he just used too many of them too soon.

2) Too much risky material

Forbes’ program was inexpensive but very ambitious – probably too ambitious. He was not into “pornography and violence” which is fine, but too many of his films depend on “everything coming together” to work i.e. you couldn’t get away with something mediocre, and too much of it was mediocre. His biggest hits, Railway Children, Go-Between and Beatrix Potter, did carry dangers – but they at least either came from very well-known source material or had big stars. The bulk of Forbes’ slate consisted of adaptations of vaguely known novels rather than truly recognisable IP (The Breaking of Bumbo had been a best-seller but that was eleven years previously).  Some of the films also had inherent production risks – for instance Mr Forbush and the Penguins involved two things that would strike fear into the heart of any production manager, animals and location filming in Antarctica.

Risky material can be made more secure at the box-office via the adroit use of stars, and several films in the “Forbes twelve” featured actors who were genuine “names” at the time: Roger Moore, Peter Sellers, John Hurt, Malcolm McDowell, Julie Christie, Alan Bates. However, of these only Julie Christie and Alan Bates in The Go-Between were actually cast in the sort of roles that made them stars in the first place (i.e. regal-yet-secretly-horny-lady-of-the-manor and hunky, sweaty man of his hands, respectively). The others were cast in change-of-pace roles… Roger Moore not playing a suave adventurer but a tormented businessman in The Man Who Haunted Himself, Sellers not playing a comic buffoon but a sympathetic stalker and kidnapper in Hoffmann, John Hurt not playing a character actor lead but a conventional leading man part in Mr Forbush, Malcolm McDowell not playing a violent anarchist but a secretly sensitive little thing in The Raging Moon. Don’t get me wrong, the stars I’ve mentioned are all great in their roles as actors… they’re just miscast as stars.

I wonder if perhaps Forbes was too influenced by (a) a determination to differentiate his slate from that of Nat Cohen’s (which I’ll talk about below), and (b) his own success as a producer-director – all the films where he made his reputation (The Angry Silence, Whistle in the Wind, The L Shape Room, etc) were conceptually risky projects. As Moody says in his book on EMI Films, Forbes “was determined to ensure that he provided opportunities for mavericks, new voices and what he felt were distinctive visions.”

Which is a wonderful, noble ideal. But to not throw a few more tried-and-true genre flicks in there (horror, action, broad comedy), especially while using so many new filmmakers, was too dangerous. And not one but two films about creepy middle aged guys wanting to schtup young women? Come on, Forbes…

Incidentally, Forbes announced several movies for EMI which he didn’t end up making. And they all sounded like chancy propositions too: more adaptations of not-that-well-known novels (A Candidate of Promise by Dennis Barker, The Bitter Lollipop by John Quigley, The Living Room by Graham Greene, The Long Loud Silence by Wilson Tucker, and Feathers of Death by Simon Raven), plus a musical about the life of Dr Bernado and A Question of Innocence based on a story by Roger Moore. None of these scream “potential blockbuster hit that would have save Forbes” (though I admit I really would have liked to see film versions of Feathers of Death and Long Loud Silence).

Incidentally, according to Moody’s book Forbes also rejected some films that ended up being made at other studios, including Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly (which was a good call on Forbes’ part), and Unman, Wittering and Zigo (which I think was a missed opportunity because that movie was awesome… maybe Forbes distrusted it because it was based on a radio play rather than a novel and Forbes was big on filming novels).

3) Not enough story

This is the one that really surprised me in a slate of films greenlit by a writer… but Forbes’ EMI movies often seemed as though they badly needed another subplot and/or were better suited as a TV play. (Several of them had previously been filmed for TV, incidentally). Sometimes, the lack of story didn’t matter so much if there was enough style (eg. Railway Children, The Go-Between). But looking at all of them, there’s not really one narrative heavy film. The less successful films – Hoffman, The Raging Moon, Forbush, And Soon the Darkness, Bumbo, etc – all feel as though they need something else to be going on to push them to feature length, another character, another twist, something.

Forbes, like a lot of actors turned writers, tended to excel in “actor-y” scripts: superb on character, observation and scenes, but not so crash hot on structure. And I think this could be felt in his movies at EMI. That’s my opinion, anyway.

4) Directing a film while head of a studio

Forbes was defensive about the criticism he received for going off and directing The Raging Moon while also being head of EMI Films, but it truly was a mad decision on his part. Running a studio isn’t just a matter of green lighting and leaving the director alone, you have to oversee post-production, distribution, and marketing, set up other projects, woo stars and journos, twist arms in board rooms, deal with unions, put out fires, bury dead bodies, all that stuff. And if you hire a lot of newbies, you couldn’t just leave the director alone either. It’s a full-time job and for Forbes to go off and write and direct a feature film (another all-encompassing job) was foolish. Even Roger Corman, perhaps the most organised filmmaker in cinema history, struggled to do it when he was simultaneously directing and running his own company Filmgroup; when Corman made a proper go of running a studio, with New World Pictures, he retired from directing – and so should have Bryan Forbes at EMI.

Here’s an interview with Forbes at the time where he puts forward his justifications for making Raging Moon. He doesn’t mention two other reasons, which I think were just as crucial (these are just guesses on my part but educated ones). First, I think he wanted to give his wife a gig, so things were happy at home (this is a more important motivation among creatives that many auteurist film critics appreciate… and Mrs Forbes had been in A Fine and Private Place which had been cancelled, so was at a loose end). Second, I feel Forbes thought at the back of his mind, ‘I’ll make something awesome myself, that’ll show the EMI board and save my arse’. I’m not saying he didn’t relate to the material or try his best, I just think sometimes one can bite off more than they can chew.

Other Films Made at EMI – Nat Cohen, Hammer and EMI

I promised earlier I’d talk more about Nat Cohen, who as I said made films for EMI during the same period as Forbes. Now, Cohen produced a lot of movies for EMI, but by my estimation the ones he made during Forbes’ stint consisted of the following::

* All the Way Up (1970) – adaptation of a hit play starring Warren Mitchell, directed by James MacTaggart.

* Some Will Some Won’t (1970) – remake of Laughter in Paradise, directed by Duncan Wood.

* Spring and Port Wine (1970) – adaptation of the hit play by Bill Naughton, starring James Mason and directed by Peter Hammond.

* Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970) – adaptation of the hit play by Joe Orton directed by Douglas Hickox

* The Body (1970) – documentary about the human body with an emphasis on sex, produced by Tony Garnett, directed by Roy Battersby.

* Percy (1971) – comedy about a man who has a penis transplant, produced by Betty E. Box and directed by Ralph Thomas

* Up Pompeii (1971) – big screen version of the popular TV series starring Frankie Howerd directed by Bob Kellett.

* Villain (1971) – gangster movie starring Richard Burton produced by Elliot Kastner, Alan Ladd and Jay Ranter, directed by Michael Tuchner.

* Family Life (1971) – drama based on a TV play by David Mercer produced by Tony Garnett, directed by Ken Loach.

(I should also add that in Alexander Walker’s book National Heroes, Cohen argued The Go-Between was made by his unit, not Forbes’. Most writers seem to classify it more as a Forbes movie, though.)

Nat Cohen

Cohen, whose career as an executive in British cinema spanned over fifty years, had a reputation as a schlockmeister, and was constantly put down in print by people like Alan Parker, Michael Deeley and Forbes, but he was smart. Damn smart. A gambler, as you have to be in the film industry, but a sensible one, again as you have to be. Before he came to EMI, he had money in films as varied as the Carry On series, The Tommy Steele Story (1957), Peeping Tom (1960), A Kind of Loving (1962), Masque of the Red Death (1964), Darling (1965) and Poor Cow (1967). I think he’s an unsung giant of British film who never got his due from the establishment in part because of (possibly unconscious) anti-Semitism.

I mean, look at Cohen’s slate for EMI. It included a gangster film with a big if fading star (Villain), an inexpensive big screen version of a sitcom (Up Pompeii), adaptations of hit plays (Spring and Port Wine, Entertaining Mr Sloan), a sexy doco (The Body), a high concept sex comedy from super commercial filmmakers (Percy) and a Ken Loach film. (NB. Incidentally, Cohen had backed Loach’s first feature, Poor Cow, and considered the director a “genius”).

Now, that is a slate that is inexpensive, sellable and varied. It has some junk but also attempts to make some decent films and promote new talent. He backed as many newbie directors as Forbes but gave them safer material to work on. There are no huge production challenges, more co-productions to spread risk, and stars were cast in the sort of roles that made them stars (Richard Burton, Warren Mitchell and Frankie Howerd). Now, some of these films vanished without a trace (eg Spring and Port Wine with a miscast James Mason), but others were hits (Villain, Percy, The Body, Up Pompeii) and even Family Life proved profitable.

In fairness, Nat Cohen was a lot more experienced as a studio executive than Bryan Forbes. But also, I think Cohen simply had “it”. The ability to be a successful studio head is very rare and most only last a few years. Cohen did it successfully at various companies for over two decades.

In addition to Nat Cohen’s slate, the Bryan Forbes years saw EMI make several movies in conjunction with Hammer Films. These were not Forbes productions – indeed, in his memoirs he whinged that they were made under the Old Pals Act between Bernard Delfont and Hammer’s Sir James Carreras. Wrote Forbes, “The cost of these films came out of the very slender resources at my disposal and meant that I had to cancel other films which I would have preferred and which, I think, might have more materially contributed to the commercial success of my program.”

I feel that Nat Cohen would have had far more to do with these movies than Forbes but, really, they were Hammer Films more than anything else:

* The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) – part of Hammer’s Frankenstein franchise, starring Ralph Bates, directed by Jimmy Sangster.

* Scars of Dracula (1970) – part of Hammer’s Dracula franchise, starring Christopher Lee, directed by Roy Ward Baker.

* Lust for a Vampire (1971) – part of Hammer’s Karnstein franchise, starring Ralph Bates, directed by Jimmy Sangster.

* Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) – part of Hammer’s Mummy franchise, directed by Seth Holt and Michael Carreras.

* Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) – based on the classic novel, starring Ralph Bates, directed by Roy Ward Baker.

* On the Buses (1971) – big screen adaptation of the TV sitcom, directed by Harry Booth.

(There were more Hammer-EMI collaborations, but I think they were all made after Forbes left).

The horror films listed above were considered disappointments at the time, and I would argue that, out of all of them, only Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb has much of a cult today (due to a combination of star Valerie Leon and the fact that Seth Holt died during filming). But such is Hammer’s fandom, these movies have never been out of circulation. And the one comedy, On the Buses, turned out to be a blockbuster, the second biggest hit of the year at the British box office, leading to two sequels. (Indeed, the success of On the Buses and Up Pompeii meant for the next few years it was a rare British sitcom that was not turned into a feature film.)

Now, I have argued that Forbes made twelve films at EMI, eleven of which were completed. However, Forbes did an interview in 1994 where he claims he made eighteen films… which he said by 1994 had made an overall profit of more than eighteen million pounds (of which Forbes got a percentage).

Which films is he talking about in addition to his eleven? (I’ve discounted A Fine and Private Place.)

He only mentioned one in the interview – On the Buses, the Hammer-EMI Film co-production. Considering this, I’m inclined to think the eighteen films Forbes is referring to consists of the eleven made and released under his auspices, plus the six Hammer-EMI co-productions I mention above, plus a movie Forbes helped make at EMI after he left his studio head job: I am a Dancer (1972), a documentary about Nureyev.

And I’m guessing the bulk of those profits came from the Hammer films plus the trio of Go-Between, Railway Children and Beatrix Potter. I could be completely wrong about that – it’s just easier for me to envision Lust for a Vampire and Scars of Dracula providing a more regular annuity than Hoffman or The Breaking of Bumbo. Regardless, I think it was cheeky of Forbes to claim seven EMI Films that were not really his as evidence of Forbes’ nous in making a commercial slate of pictures. Especially, something like On the Buses which, as Paul Moody notes, is “a Cohen production through and through”.

(Incidentally another classic, profitable movie came out around this time under the EMI banner: Get Carter (1971), the legendary Michael Caine gangster flick. This was made by EMI in conjunction with MGM but from what I understand, the green light guy on that project was Robert Littmann, head of MGM’s British operation and Forbes had nothing to do with it. And Forbes specifically said he had nothing to do with a later MGM-EMI movie, Ken Russell’s version of The Boyfriend (1971).)

After Forbes Left EMI

Forbes never stopped working once he left EMI. He resumed his career as a writer and director, making some interesting films, others less so: I am a Dancer (1972), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Slipper and the Rose (1976), International Velvet (1978), Better Late Than Never (1983), The Naked Face (1984), Endless Night (1989). He also enjoyed a lot of success as a novelist and columnist.

In memoirs and interviews, Forbes regularly put forward his side of the story about EMI, blaming unions and corporate backstabbers and distributors and incompetents. In the 1994 piece I’ve often referred to, Forbes talks at length about EMI; he argues he was smart, he was lied to, his bosses were often idiots – basically, the same thing everyone does in their memoirs when discussing a chapter of professional failure. I can’t blame him for that – like I say, everyone does it – but I do feel he was unnecessarily bitchy about Cohen (“I think if he was making gloves or plastic toilet rolls he’d be just as happy”). I also didn’t like the way Forbes never seemed to mention the booting of several Associated British executives when he arrived at EMI, most notably Sydney Newman, the legendary head of TV drama at BBC.

I’m not saying Forbes is a bad man – he was a good man, with a lot of talent, who was responsible for some terrific movies; I just think maybe when people’s feelings are hurt they can turn a little mean.

After Forbes left EMI, Nat Cohen ran the studio alone for the next few years, continuing his sensible, cautious gambling with the type of films he greenlit. In the early 1970s, he was dubbed the most powerful man in the British film industry… and he kind of was. Cohen’s bread-and-butter output consisted of big screen adaptations of TV series (Steptoe and Son, Henry VIII and His Six Wives, The Likely Lads, Love Thy Neighbour) mixed in with some late Hammer horrors (Fear in the Night, Straight on til Morning, Demons of the Mind), action films (eg. Fear is the Key), star vehicles for local comics (Our Miss Fred, The House in Nightmare Park, The Best Pair of Legs in the Business), sequels to hits (Steptoe 2, Buses 2 and 3, Ups 2 and 3, Percy 2, Stardust). He still took risks with a few films every year: some didn’t pay off (The Final Programme), others turned out very well (That’ll Be the Day). Cohen’s record of spotting talent was far superior to Forbes (although, admittedly he made a lot more films and thus had more opportunity): he put money in early works of filmmakers like Ken Loach, Michael Winner, John Schlesinger, John Boorman, Michael Apted, David Puttnam, and Alan Parker.

Cohen’s biggest success as studio head was an all-star adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), which put EMI in the cinematic big leagues. Ironically, I believe this ultimately hurt Cohen’s career because it gave Bernard Delfont a taste for making international blockbusters. So, when Cohen resumed a cautious program for EMI, some of which turned out well (All Creatures Great and Small), others that didn’t (Seven Nights in Japan, Alfie Darling, Aces High) and one that wasn’t even finished (Trick or Treat?), Delfont decided to bring in some “fresh blood”. This consisted of the team of Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings, who had been running British Lion. Deeley and Spikings had a far more international focus than Cohen, going after the American market in a big way; they enjoyed some tremendous initial successes (The Deer Hunter, The Driver, Convoy) before it all came crashing down (Honky Tonk Freeway)… but that’s a story for another article – read Moody’s book if you want to know more.

So, anyway, Bryan Forbes. If this essay comes across as negative, it was because I got angry at the way he dissed Nat Cohen in that 1994 interview. But, I will give Forbes a lot of credit – he was not afraid to have a go. And his slate included Railway Children, Beatrix Potter, And Soon the Darkness, The Man Who Haunted Himself, The Go-Between, Eyewitness, The Raging Moon… that’s pretty good, even with flaws.

Indeed, if Forbes hadn’t greenlit, say, Mr Forbush, Bumbo, A Fine and Private Place, Hoffman and Dulcima, history would have judged him very differently.

Regardless, his time as head of EMI Films is definitely a story that should be better known.

The author would like to thank Paul Moody for his assistance with this piece. All opinions are my own.

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